Booty Call

The Afghan Whigs' search for their soul produces a new collection of retro rump shakers

As the alt-rock well has continued to run dry, a whole set of post-punk bands have taken to appropriating the blues, with varying degrees of success. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Red Red Meat, Railroad Jerk, and Royal Trux have each wandered through a Mississippi Delta of their mind's design. Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs, however, might be the only post-punk band to draw on classic soul (with the possible exception of D.C.'s the Make Up).

It's not surprising that when white boho bands draw on older, black forms, they invariably concentrate on the more decadent aspects of the source material. The Whigs' take on mid-'60s soul has been similarly skewed toward the music's tormented romance and lust. And, as with the above-listed bands, their experiments have been somewhat hit-or-miss. Yet, with the seemingly tossed-off, subtle-yet-substantial 1965 (Columbia), the band has finally begun to make something of their soul fetish.

Name-dropping New York rapper Nas on "Omerta," and conjuring Marvin Gaye on "John the Baptist," one of the record's nearly half-dozen seduction songs, singer Greg Dulli has never sounded as relaxed as he does here. Musically, 1965 gives itself over to the emotional release the band consciously avoided on the gloomy 1993 breakthrough Gentlemen. Responding to Dulli's cue, the rest of the Whigs earn comparisons to their R&B forebears. On "Crazy," Rick McCollum nails circular guitar lines into Dulli's lyrics with the mathematical precision of an alt-rock Steve Cropper, and "Citi Soleil" indicates that bassist John Curley has been studying the Motown house bass player James Jamerson.

The album's title evokes the year in which soul music fully emerged, the year of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and Otis Blue. Motown's "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Nowhere to Run," "My Girl," and "Tracks of My Tears" all dropped in '65, making it the first year the label could accurately claim to be the "Sound of Young America." The Whigs, three Rust Belting punk boys who've been artfully working out a serious jones for classic soul, would probably consider this their soul apotheosis.

It has taken them nearly a decade to flesh out this particular side of their retro-obsession. Emerging out of Cincinnati to find a home on Sub Pop in 1990, the band's first connections to the music were only implied by photos on their album sleeves. An early single appropriated the classic Stax finger-snap logo (placing a cigarette between the fingers), though the track's noise-rock was basically dog-eared pre-Nirvana grunge. The dubious cover for 1992's Congregation could have been interpreted as borderline racist, offering a naked black woman nurturing a white baby: The blues had a son and named him...

The band's love of R&B was made explicit on their Sub Pop farewell, the 1992 EP Uptown Avondale. A collection of classic soul covers, Uptown saw the band exposing the darker sides of soul songs like Percy Sledge's "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road," the Supremes' "Come See About Me," and Freda Payne's already bizarre "Band of Gold." In 1993 the Whigs jumped to the majors with one of the year's best records, their Elektra debut, Gentlemen, which continued to work out Uptown Avondale's macabre mood. A streamlined masterpiece of dysfunctional sex and self-loathing, Gentlemen turned Dulli into an alt-rock sex symbol--a grimmer version of the self-destructive bad boy--and it made the band a mainstream contender.

Yet the subsequent commercial failure and artistic disappointment of 1996's ambitious Black Love led to the band's break with Elektra. After a yearlong hiatus from Whigdom, the band signed with Columbia and reconvened in New Orleans to produce the understated 1965, which is practically a Katrina and the Waves record compared to the darkness they indulged in with Gentlemen and Black Love. "Guilt takes a back seat to lust on this record," says Dulli in a Columbia press release.

Sure enough, he still has sex on the brain, though his sentiments on 1965 suggest lust might actually be something to look forward to. "Baby, you don't know just how I lie awake/And dream awhile about your smile/And the way you make yo ass shake," Dulli sings on the album's opener, "Somethin' Hot," a pickup song that sets the tone for the rest of the album. McCollum and Curley lock into a groove that lubricates Dulli's sex spiel. "Ooh child, I'll meet you, child/On the sunny side, it's alright, it's alright/No lies and no cryin'/It's alright," Dulli sings on "Citi Soleil"--an act of testifying that would shock most Gentlemen fans.

Musically, this is as close as the band has ever come to the sound of classic soul, employing New Orleans piano and horns without a tinge of irony. It's also the closest they've come to the conceptual heart of the music. Soul isn't an idea; it's a physical reality--the propulsion of the groove, the grain of the voice, and the secular salvation that ensues when those two elements coalesce perfectly. It's like Dulli recently told Alternative Press: "This time out, baby, it's all about fucking. There's no concept, no theme--just a bunch of big, fat, nasty rump shakers." That probably isn't how Al Green would put it, but I bet Wilson Pickett wouldn't have it any other way.

 
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